Clint Ashcraft found out Wednesday night that his Wampus Cats still have some growl.

"We’ve been good the past three seasons, but good is the enemy of great," said Ashcraft, entering his fourth year as Conway High football coach. "We have to stay hungry."

The Wampus Cats had an appetizing debut Wednesday night, downing North Little Rock, 28-24, in an Arkansas Activities Aassociation benefit game. While preseason scrimmages are often a shaky indicator of longterm success, Conway’s efforts raised some eyebrows. Observers in North Little Rock noted that the preseason contest was an impressive display of athleticism on both sides from teams projected to be state contenders.

It certainly had to be encouraging for Ashcraft, whose team lost 10 defensive starters.

However, the Cats have 30 seniors and 46 juniors, several of whom have been major backups the last couple of years. Ashcraft and his staff seem to be reaping the rewards of some things they initially instituted that have kept youngsters active and in the program.

During an appearance Wednesday before the Conway Kiwanis Club, Ashcraft noted that he talked to several colleagues about the contest with North Little Rock, formerly a conference oppponent that has been shifted to 7A/6A East.

"Y’all gonna scrimmage those guys?" Ashcraft said was the common reaction. "I didn’t get the impression they thought it was a good idea. But I wanted to see where we are."

He needed that. The Cats have two tough contests to begin the season, at Bryant and Jonesboro at home.

Ashcraft made several changes in his program that should have short- and long-term benefits.

The Cats have all new weights in their weight room. The old weights were moved to the eighth- and ninth-grade campus. "The varsity benefits from the newer weights and the eighth- and ninth-graders now have their own weight room on their campus, and they’ve never had that before; that should pay off huge for us in the future," Ashcraft said.

Having grades 10-12 at the new high school is also a benefit.

"That puts the sophomores on our campus, and we’re able to bring them in at 7 in the morning to lift weights, then they have their own practice first period," Ashcraft said. "This allows our sophomores to go against their own age group and not get physically beat up in practices going against more mature upperclassmen."

"Each of the four elementary schools with grades 6-7 will have their own football team," Ashcraft said. "That gets more young players into our program early and it will eventually trickle up to us."

Also, the eighth- and ninth-grade teams will have the same coaches for two years.

"This gives the coaches a better idea of what’s coming and the players will know and be familiar with who coaches them," Ashcraft said. "I think that will be a great benefit, but it will be a year or two before that starts showing up."

The Cats have participated in a 7-on-7 league with 22 team workouts (in half pads) during the summer. They hosted a team camp each week, which the AAA allows if three or more teams participate in the camp.

"Used to be, you’d start up in August; now, it’s pretty much all year," said Ashcraft.

The Cats participated in two 7-on-7 tournaments. Ashcraft like’s leagues, not traveliing all over for tournaments.

"We like to do in 7-on-7 what we do to get better at it," Ashcraft said. "Teams tend to do things in 7-on-7 that they don’t do on Friday nights. We’re not going to do things we don’t do just to win a 7-on-7 tournament."

Ashcraft noted that his team’s goal this year is to play on Thanksiving week. That’s one week before the 7A state title game.

That’s not selling his team short.

"If you’re not playing on Thanksgiving week, there’s no way you can play the next week," he said.

Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net